Many informal English words have a Latin-derived formal synonym
THE NATURE & USE OF FORMAL WORDS
Sometimes the difference between two words of similar meaning is not so much what they mean as where they are used (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words). This is the case, for example, with scapulas and shoulder blades, the former being common in medical English, the latter in everyday speech (see 77. Apposition). Choosing the wrong alternative in a particular type of writing is often called an error of “appropriacy” (see 166. Appropriacy in Professional English).
A large area of English that often expresses meanings with different words from those of ordinary speech (and occasionally with different grammar too) is academic and professional writing. Its special language is, in fact, the basis of the “formal style” that it is said to normally have. A very important point about this language is that it is not something impressive to achieve, but rather a means of avoiding certain kinds of undesirable language. Hence knowing what language is undesirable in formal writing is at least as important as knowing what to replace it with (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”).
An interesting feature of formal-sounding words is that they are usually derived from Latin, the language of the ancient Roman rulers of Europe 2000 years ago, rather than Old English. Most were imported into English via French after England came under French-speaking monarchs 1000 years ago (see 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary). This link between formal language and historical rulers of England makes sense because both represent power.
An earlier Guinlist post (45. Latin Clues to English Spelling) looks at the spelling of Latin-derived words in formal English. Two later ones (130. Formal Abbreviations and 172. Multi-Use Suffixes) respectively present common Latin abbreviations and Latin endings in this kind of English. In this post I wish to look in more detail at how “Latinate” words typically replace non-Latinate words in English so as to achieve formality.
FORMAL EQUIVALENTS OF TWO-WORD VERBS
A very large category of formal English words is Latinate verbs with the same meaning as everyday two-word verbs. Two-word verbs tend to be combinations of simple English verbs with either a preposition (making “prepositional” verbs like LEAD TO and COPE WITH – see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions) or an adverb (making “phrasal” verbs like MAKE OUT or GIVE UP – see 139. Phrasal Verbs). Prepositional verbs always have a following noun (”object”), which must be placed after the preposition, whereas phrasal verbs may have no object, and if there is one, it may come before the adverb as well as after.
Latinate verbs have various recognizable features. Many are combinations of a Latin preposition, such as ex-, con- or ab-, and a simple Latin verb like duc, tain or pel (for more, see 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling). Ability to be made into a noun with -ment, -ence, -ance, -al, -sion, -tion or -ation is also a good clue.
Here are some common two-word verbs and their Latinate equivalents:
1. Prepositional Verbs
ASK FOR = REQUEST
COME AFTER = FOLLOW
COME UP TO = REACH/ATTAIN
DEAL WITH = MANAGE
LEAD TO = CAUSE
LOOK AT = REGARD
LOOK FOR = SEEK
LOOK INTO = INVESTIGATE
LOOK LIKE = RESEMBLE
PUT UP WITH = TOLERATE
REFER TO = CONSULT
SETTLE FOR = CHOOSE
SPEAK TO = ADDRESS
TALK ABOUT = DISCUSS/CONSIDER
THINK ABOUT = CONSIDER/PONDER
THINK OF = CONCEIVE
WAIT FOR = AWAIT
2. Phrasal Verbs
BREAK DOWN = FAIL/COLLAPSE
BREAK OFF = SUSPEND/ADJOURN
BREAK UP = DISINTEGRATE
BRING IN = INTRODUCE
COME BACK = RETURN
COME/GO IN = ENTER
GET AWAY = ESCAPE
GIVE/BRING BACK = RETURN
GIVE IN = YIELD
GIVE OUT = DISTRIBUTE
GIVE UP = QUIT
LINK UP = CONNECT
PUT/SET DOWN = DEPOSIT
SET OUT (1) = DISPLAY
SET OUT (2) = DEPART
TAKE AWAY = REMOVE
THROW AWAY = DISCARD
THROW OUT = EJECT
A notable trend among phrasal verbs is the likelihood of those with back to match Latinate verbs with re-. Thus, GO BACK = RETURN, GET BACK = REGAIN, LOOK BACK = REVIEW, PUSH BACK = REPEL and SEND BACK = RETURN.
English has many other two-word verbs with a Latinate equivalent. If in formal writing you can think only of a two-word verb for the meaning you want, you can try consulting a thesaurus for a one-word equivalent. Note, though, that some two-word verbs contain a Latinate verb and are likely as a result not to be informal. Examples are ALLUDE TO, APPROVE OF, DEPEND ON, DISPENSE WITH, DISPOSE OF, INSIST ON and RESULT IN.
FORMAL QUANTITY WORDS
Another area of English that often has formal and informal equivalents is adverbs showing different strengths of a following adjective or adverb – so-called “adverbs of degree”. Consider this example:
(a) The task was a bit easier than before.
The underlined words are very informal. It is more formal to say a little, and more formal again to say slightly (a word of English rather than Latin origin).The main adverbs of degree that possess a more formal equivalent are as follows. The underlined ones are especially conversational.
a bit/a little = slightly
pretty/quite/fairly/rather = appreciably, moderately
really/very = extremely, hugely
a lot/far/much (+ comparative) = considerably
More about the difference between very and much is in the post 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”.
As well as going with adjectives and adverbs, a bit and a lot can accompany a verb, e.g. works a bit/a lot. The formal equivalent of a bit used like this is a little or a small amount. Instead of a lot there are numerous possibilities. One can nearly always say very much or a great deal, but particular verbs also allow one or more alternatives (most of which are listed in advanced English coursebooks). For example, with works one might say hard, with hopes fervently, with depends greatly (or heavily), with deny strenuously, and with needs desperately. With verbs of change, like CHANGE, INCREASE and FALL, there is an especially wide choice – see 115. Surveying Numerical Data for details.
There is also a pronoun use of a bit and a lot, e.g. earns a bit/a lot. Here, a bit is replaceable again by a little/a small amount, but a lot sometimes needs very much/a great deal and sometimes very many or a great many, depending on whether it represents an uncountable noun or a countable one like this:
(b) Poisonous snakes are abundant, but a great many are very shy.
A lot can also be used informally with of before a noun instead of a more precise number (see 95. Hedging 1: Numbers & Generalizations). In formal writing, it can be replaced by many or various, but a more impressive Latinate equivalent is numerous.
OTHER FORMAL EQUIVALENTS
The verb GET is another informal word that is especially productive of Latinate alternatives. This is because it has so many different meanings. In the following sentences, a different formal equivalent of GET is needed each time:
(c) The atmosphere seems to be getting hotter all the time.
(d) Visitors can get a pass from the main office.
(e) British citizens get a letter from the Monarch when they reach 100.
(f) It is easy to get a flight from Jakarta to Australia.
(g) The treatment of cancer is getting better all the time.
In (c), one can use becoming or growing, neither of which is Latinate. In (d), the word is obtain, in (e) receive, in (f) catch or arrange and in (g) improving.
Some -ly adverbs drop this ending in informal spoken usage: for example, one often hears go slow instead of go slowly. More on this is in the post 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs.
Care should be taken to choose the right alternative to the informal word big. Speakers of Latin-derived languages – Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Rumanian, Spanish – tend to replace it incorrectly with important or significant because similar-looking words in those languages do have the meaning of big. In English, these words say nothing about size but are more to do with role. The main formal synonyms of big are large, great and major (not huge, which means very big – see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words).
Large seems to be preferred with concrete nouns like room, vehicle or animal, and great must be used when there is a suggestion of “imposing”, “special”, “famous” or “wonderful” (e.g. Alexander The Great, great amenities). Otherwise, with non-concrete (abstract) nouns, a choice between large and great often seems to depend on the noun being described, in other words to be a matter of “collocation”. Here are some typical abstract partners of large and great (the underlined ones also allow major):
Abstract Nouns Requiring “large”
a factor, a group, a kind, a number, a quantity, a role, a scale, a surplus, a value.
Abstract Nouns Requiring “great”
accuracy, an achievement, charm, a deal, dignity, a discovery, an effect, importance, interest, a loss, meaning, a mistake, a need, relevance, resolve, responsibility, significance, success, a success, understanding, value, a welcome.
Abstract Nouns Allowing Either
an amount, an extent, a part, a range, a rate, a step.
Two nouns that need to be avoided in formal writing are thing (countable) and stuff (uncountable). Replacements often depend on context, but common thing words include object, item and idea, and stuff words include material, substance and matter.
Lastly, the words good and bad, which each possess numerous meanings, are often replaced with more precise Latinate equivalents. Words meaning good include appropriate, attractive, beneficial, desirable, effective, enjoyable, pleasant, suitable and virtuous, while equivalents of bad include damaging, harmful, problematic, troublesome, undesirable, unhealthy, unpleasant and unwanted. More can be found with a thesaurus.